When the ends justify the controversial means

Ruth Mortimer

‘Homeless hotspots’ – using vulnerable people living on the streets as mobile Wi-Fi access points – sounds like something that might appear in Private Eye magazine or on satirical websites The Onion or The Poke. But homeless hotspots is a genuine initiative carried out at this year’s SXSW technology and music festival in Austin, Texas by ad agency BBH. The company equipped 13 homeless people with 4G mobile Wi-Fi devices so members of the public could use them to access the internet for a suggested fee of around $2 for 15 minutes.

The idea is to create a modern version of street newspapers, such as The Big Issue. These papers are distributed and sold by people without homes so they can afford to access help, slowly building up the means to move off the streets. Yet as BBH puts it: “Just like any print publication, these newspapers are under duress from the proliferation of digital media.” So in a modernisation of the street newspaper concept, the hotspots allow people to access their online media and the homeless person profits from the scheme.

The problem is not the concept – BBH is trying to equip people with the means to get off the streets – but the marketing of the scheme

Public reception of the initiative has been pretty hostile. Some have accused BBH of treating vulnerable people as commodities, saying it takes advantage of “underprivileged, marginalised people” on behalf of wealthy, social networking hipsters.

For me, however, the criticism should be aimed at the naivety of how this scheme is being presented to the public rather than the actual concept. BBH was not doing this for a commercial sponsor – it was trying to equip people with the means to make money and get off the streets. The problem is BBH’s marketing of the scheme. By calling it ‘homeless hotspots’ and emblazoning this across the vendors’ T-shirts, it appears to be a marketing concept rather than a social one.

BBH has since elaborated on its thoughts for how the scheme could evolve: “We’d like to see iterations of the programme in which this media channel of hotspots is owned by the homeless organisations and used as a platform for them to create content. We are doing this because we believe in the model of street newspapers.” In other words, it’s sticking by its idea but taking the criticism on board.

Homeless hotspots isn’t the only such initiative drawing public interest this week, however. Mark Ritson draws attention to another – a film, Kony 2012, that attempts to raise awareness of guerilla warfare in Uganda. With over 74 million views on YouTube alone, the film has also received heavy criticism for its alleged oversimplification of the issues.

Both Kony 2012 and BBH’s initiatives may be controversial but at least they are using the qualities of new media and marketing to help people make ambitious social changes. That spirit alone is creditable.

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